A Writer’s Tools: Using Words
Have you ever written a sentence, then changed a word in the sentence and used its synonym because you weren’t sure if you had spelled it correctly? You’re not alone! This is very common and has been researched extensively in various fields. It’s called avoidance.
Knowing vocabulary has different levels. The meaning of the verb “to know” is very general and covers a wide range of familiarity.
When you read or hear a word that doesn’t look or sound familiar at all, you don’t know it.
On the other hand, when a word is part of your vocabulary collection and you use it regularly in the written and spoken language, you know it well.
These, however, are the two ends of the spectrum.
Sometimes, a word looks or sounds familiar, meaning you’ve read it or heard it before, but you don’t know exactly what it means. You may or may not know what its correct pronunciation or spelling is. You may or may not know what part of speech it is.
Sometimes, you know what a word means and you know how to spell it or pronounce it, or you think you know, but you still don’t feel confident using it because you’re unsure about some aspect of it.
If you’re unsure of the spelling of a word, a good solution would be to look up the word in the dictionary, learn the spelling and its pronunciation, and use it enough times to remember it, instead of avoiding it.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the spelling but the use of the word that causes avoidance. Whether it’s the part of speech that’s unclear or what preposition is used with it, you don’t want to use it incorrectly, so you avoid it.
Looking up how to use a word in a sentence isn’t as easy as finding how it’s spelled. Dictionaries often offer some evidence, or sentences in which the word is used. You can always google how to use a specific word, too, and you will get a few examples.
However, very often reading those few sentences don’t really answer your question or solve your problem, and you still don’t have the confidence to use it, so you end up either using a synonym instead or changing the structure of the whole sentence just to avoid it.
Sometimes you’re satisfied with the new sentence, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes you’re not, though. The problem, or rather the new problem, is the synonym you used isn’t quite right because it doesn’t exactly convey the message you wanted to send.
That’s when this tool comes in handy: The Compleat Lexical Tutor (www.lextutor.ca). This website is a fantastic resource that I frequently use.
When you go to the site, it seems very complicated. Unfortunately, its interface isn’t exactly what some might call user-friendly. I recommend spending some time on this website and playing with it a bit by clicking on different links and trying out searches when you can to get familiar with it because it offers various types of vocabulary support.
To get you started on using this valuable site, I’ll give you the steps you need to see a word used in many sentences, which is just one of the many benefits of this site. Looking at the concordance is really the best way to get a feel for the word and its use.
When you type “lextutor.ca” in your browser and click “enter,” the home page looks like this screenshot:
Yes. It looks crazy busy, but don’t let that scare you. You see four columns. In the second column, find the word “Concordance” and click on it. You’ll get the page in this screenshot:
On this page, near the top, look at number 1.Corpus concordances, and click on “English”. Then you’ll see the page in the following screenshot:
The options on this page are pretty self-explanatory. In front of “Keyword(s):” there’s a box that by default says “equals.” If you click on the arrow next to it, you will see other options. If you need something different than centering your word in the text, you can select it from the drop-down menu.
Once that’s done, you can just type the word you want to see used in a sentence in the blank box next to it.
Then choose the corpus you need, on that same line, depending on the kind of content you want to find your word in, like academic texts, written language, spoken English, etc.
Once you’ve made your choices, click on the big yellow button that says “Get concordance” at the bottom of the page.
A list of sentences containing your word will be displayed. This will give you the opportunity to look at many sample sentences in which that specific word has been used and will help you get a better understanding of the uses of the word.
The more common your word and the bigger your corpus, the more examples you will see. For instance, a common word like “focus” will get a lot more results than a word like “embargo.”
Compare the screenshots of the displayed results for these two words:
As you can see, the word “focus” yielded 1420 results in a variety of linguistic fields in an eight-million-word corpus, whereas “embargo” got only 6 results, most of them used in texts related to politics.
This resource is a great tool for any writer. I have personally found it very useful, and I refer to it frequently. I hope it helps you, too.